Ola Osman on what her research shows about the anti-black logics that emerged out of slavery and how they influenced Liberian political life.
I am interested in how the violent force of white supremacy extends through colonised and stolen people’s interpellation of its ideologies.Ola Osman
When she first started doing Women’s Studies, Ola Osman  spent time in Liberia researching the impact of the civil war on women. For her PhD she has taken a step back to look at the deeper roots of Liberian politics and how the repatriation of enslaved people during the ‘Back to Africa’ Movement in the 19th and 20th centuries had an impact on the politicisation of ethnicity.
Ola’s family knows about the impact of conflict. She was born in Omdurman, Sudan, and her family had to flee abroad during the country’s second civil war. They moved first to New York and then to London, Ontario, in Canada. Her father worked several jobs to support the family. Ola has an older sister who is a teacher in Saudi Arabia, two younger siblings at university in Canada and a younger sister who is still at secondary school.
She attended an arts-focused high school where she took classes in arts, music and dance. She describes herself as “very artsy” and had some of her poetry published at an early age which delighted her father, who is also a poet and encouraged Ola’s artistic tendencies.
However, when she started university – Western University in Ontario – she opted to major in chemistry, thinking, as an immigrant, that it would offer her more financial security. But science did not come naturally to her – she had to work at it and didn’t enjoy it.
While at university she also became politically active. She was on the executive committee for the Black Students Association which involved creating a cultural space for black students from all over the diaspora and organising events and vigils. She started university the year the Black Lives Matters movement got underway and organised a vigil for Michael Brown, who was fatally shot by a police officer in 2014.
Ola slowly realised that chemistry was not for her and that she wanted to organise and write about Black people’s experiences, especially those of Black women which have been so understudied. Erica Lawson, Associate Professor in the Department of Women’s Studies and Feminist Research, introduced some of the key works on Black feminist theory into the syllabus and became Ola’s mentor. She says the works really chimed with her own experiences and those of her friends and family.
While at Western, Ola also worked as a research assistant to Professor Lawson, doing a project on women’s peace activism in Liberia before, during and after the civil war. As part of that work, Ola travelled to Liberia for three weeks in the summer of 2017 and interviewed women peace activists mobilised against the conflict, setting up focus groups and writing up transcripts of interviews. It was her first experience conducting fieldwork and it expanded her views on how she thought about gender and race. She started to wonder about the women who fought during the war, who were not included in the project, where they were 15 years on and how the war had affected their lives.
She wrote a proposal to study that as part of her application to do a master’s in Women’s Studies at the University of Oxford. However, she was not able to do the fieldwork required as the course is only nine months. Instead she researched Black maternal mourning practices and the role of mothers in the history of black organising movements. Her supervisor was Pelagia Goulimari, an expert in literary criticism and theory. Ola says that, as a result of her teaching, she was exposed to a lot of literature that still frames how she thinks, particularly Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
At Oxford, where she was a Clarendon Scholar, she joined the Oxford Africa Society to build a sense of community and helped to put on events such as a talk by the former President of Botswana.
For her PhD in Multi-disciplinary Gender Studies Ola applied to Cambridge as she was eager to get a more international lens on gender and to be supervised by Dr Devon Curtis, whose work on conflict and peacebuilding in Africa she greatly admired. Because of Covid, she was unable to pursue her original research proposal, although she had completed much of the groundwork for it before the pandemic hit.
Interested in the relationship between race, ethnicity and gender, especially politicised ethnicity, and in that between ethnicity and race, she continued to read around the subject and across disciplines, drawing on transnational theories of anti-Blackness and literature on conflict, peace and security. She decided to focus on the impact of the American Colonisation Society (ACS) had on Liberian politics and social life. Through studying the texts of those who founded the movement and how they talked about race, Ola wanted to think through the experiences of the repatriated and explore what their interactions with Indigenous people in Liberia were like when they returned.
What she found was that the anti-black logics that emerged out of racial slavery had also influenced Liberian political life.
She says: “A lot of international relations talk of the politicisation of ethnicity as a form of “indirect rule”, but I am more interested in how anti-black logics are embedded in ethnicity – largely understood as a fixed cultural phenomenon. I am interested in how the violent force of white supremacy extends through colonised and stolen people’s interpellation of its ideologies.”
Despite the impact of Covid, Ola has been able to continue her activism at Cambridge, co-founding a bi-weekly Race Talks Seminar Series to address “the ways in which universities as institutions are animated by histories of colonialism, which in turn shape the organisation of knowledge production as well as citational practices”. The series investigates processes and histories of race and gender making and aims to foster critical conversation about race, racialisation and processes of race-making.
Ola is currently writing up her thesis and thinking about her next steps, whether that is in academia or beyond. Ideally, she would like to write fiction, following in the steps of Toni Morrison.